Talking head or live person?

June 29, 2010

I’ve spoken at a technical writers’ conference in another Australian state a couple of times. I was approached to see if I’d like to speak again this year, but only if I was going to be in that state at the time of the conference as there was little money for bringing anyone over from the other side of the country this year. The alternative offered was whether I would do a presentation via webcam.

I’ve only ever tried webcam once — for a meeting — and it was just AWFUL.

This horrid experience made me realize how important lighting is (normal household lighting is just terrible, and a lamp aimed at your face is no better). Background is just as important — especially what’s happening in the background (other people/pets/children walking through, untidy shelves and computer cables, dark walls/shelves, etc.). And angle is vitally important too. You have to position the webcam at an angle that doesn’t make you look like something viewed through a fish-eye lens, and that’s not easy (impossible?) to do with an inbuilt webcam in a laptop.

Clothing and makeup are added issues — I was wearing my usual work-from-home clothing and had no makeup on. And finally, sound. To get good sound, you may need to wear a headset (microphones and speakers on laptops aren’t the best quality), which just adds to the ‘look’. To say I looked gray, pasty, fat, and sleepy would be an understatement. As I said, it was just an awful experience and one I wouldn’t try again.

So when I was asked if doing a presentation via webcam was an option, I replied:

… you’re right, my style of presenting doesn’t lend itself to a webcam (and just quietly, the only time I used a webcam, I looked God-awful — that’s a technical term! — so I REALLY wouldn’t to use one again, especially for a conference presentation).

Well, it seems some on the conference organizing committee ‘bristled’ at my response to their ‘great idea’. And the rhetorical question was asked about how we can then watch (and presumably learn) via TV.

My response to that was:

We learn from TV as it tells a story — even documentaries tell a story. We like narrative. And an episode of something like NCIS or CSI encapsulates a short story in just 40 mins — it has a beginning, a middle and an end.

Talking heads, unless done REALLY well, don’t convey a story — there’s no other context than the talking head. In TV programs (docs, reality TV <ugh>, drama etc. even cartoons), there are many camera angles and scenes — a talking head doesn’t have that.

On a stage, a presenter can move around, gesticulate, refer to the screen, address an audience member by looking them in the eye, move their eyes across the audience scanning for responses and interaction. A talking head via a webcam has none of that, and it takes a very seasoned professional to pull it off.

I respond to an audience. If I can’t see or hear that audience, I’m ‘flat’. So I won’t do a talking head thing for a presentation. One-on-one training stuff? Maybe. But not a presentation.

I’m surprised none of [the committee] are aware that a presentation is more than just the speaker speaking. It includes a whole heap of visual and non-verbal BODY clues and cues that can’t be conveyed via just a talking head on a screen. Perhaps they’ve been bamboozled by the technologies available today, but just because there’s technology that can make it happen, it doesn’t mean that it’s the right way to do it.

So, what do you think? Given that you’re attending a conference session (that you’ve paid for and traveled to get to), would you prefer to listen to and view a talking head on a screen, or a real live person?

One comment

  1. Interesting topic, Rhonda.

    I’d take the live person any time.

    I would feel cheated if I paid good money for a conference and then found it was a talking head on the screen, unless there was a good reason for it. The volcano in Iceland — with the keynote speaker unable to attend because there were no flights, for example — is one time I would be okay with it.

    Watching and learning from TV isn’t normally done by simply watching a talking head anyway. It’s a full production effort, taking a lot of people, time and effort to create (cheaper to send one person to a conference, I think), and there are a whole lot of other things going on over the course of the show.

    It’s apples and pears.

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